Questions to Ask Before Heading to Law School

Earning a law degree is a crucial step in the path to a legal career and requires a significant investment of money, time and energy. Before heading to law school, prospective law students should reflect on their motivations and determine if they’d find a legal job fulfilling, experts say.

This means asking questions that require self-assessment, such as why they want to be a lawyer, which school is best for their goals and when it would be best to start. It’s also wise to speak with practicing attorneys and alumni of target programs, experts say.

“When you meet, find out why they are in their current careers and practice areas,” says Katherine Scannell, vice dean for institutional success at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law in Missouri. “Learn what they do on an average day, what they love about their careers and what is the most challenging. Understanding both what does and does not interest you is incredibly valuable.”

Here are some questions experts say J.D. hopefuls should ask before heading to law school.

Do I Really Want to Be a Lawyer?

Because law school requires a major time and financial investment, law school hopefuls should seriously consider why they want to be a lawyer, experts say.

“Are you attracted to law for the income potential, skill development, because you like a legal television series or you just don’t know what else to do with your undergrad degree?” Scannell says. “Think carefully and be intentional. You don’t have to have it all figured out, but you should consider the financial and time investment.”

[READ: How Long Is Law School and What Is it Like?]

How Do I Know if I Should Become a Lawyer?

Unlike how it may appear on television, being a lawyer isn’t always glamorous. For example, some lawyers spend the majority of their time drafting, researching and writing, Scannell says. Others, like criminal defense attorneys, spend significant time in court and meeting with clients.

Because there’s a broad range of types of lawyers and practices, law school hopefuls should understand what drives them personally and then determine if there is a practice area that fits their personal values, experts say.

“If your reason to pursue a legal career is not in synch with your personal values, then you have to take a step back and reassess your career goals,” Ro Lee, a prelaw adviser at Pitzer College and associate director of career and professional development at Claremont Graduate University in California, wrote in an email. “For example, if you are passionate about assisting underserved communities, you can become a legal advocate, or if you enjoy working with paperwork and not interacting much with others, you can do some document work in mergers and acquisitions.”

Those considering law school should have long-term career goals in mind and know whether a law degree is necessary to reach them. J.D. hopefuls should identify specific jobs or areas within the legal profession that interest them and talk with those already working to confirm it’s something they want to do and that a law degree is required.

“I think there are a lot of people who go to law school without that specific of an interest, just saying, ‘I’m interested in the law and I’m a good writer,'” says Andrew Willinger, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law and a lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law in North Carolina. “But I think the best thing you can do is make a list of specific lawyer jobs and try to reach out to those people to talk to them about their day-to-day life and figure out if it’s something you want to do.”

Before applying, it may be beneficial to shadow practicing attorneys or volunteer at a legal clinic or government office. This will not only help applicants determine if law is truly the field they want to pursue, but “gaining field experience before diving into writing a personal statement for law school can be really beneficial,” says Kristen Willmott, senior private counselor and graduate school admissions director at Top Tier Admissions.

What Makes a Good Lawyer?

Successful lawyers are passionate and driven about their work, but they’re also skilled in several specific areas, experts say. Strong reading comprehension and writing and analytical skills are key, as are the abilities to debate and think critically and creatively.

“A good lawyer has excellent communication skills, which requires strong listening skills and the ability to simplify and explain complex issues,” Scannell says. “They will possess integrity and professionalism. They are able to strategize and problem-solve multifaceted issues. They have a strong work ethic and are self-motivated.”

[Read: 5 Personal Qualities That Law School Applicants Should Have]

Those who don’t enjoy reading will likely not cut it as a lawyer, Lee says. “Reading cases, facts, testimonies, applicable laws and reports all require an analytical mind to pick up information that favors your client and case.”

Which Law School Is Best for Me?

Many J.D. hopefuls may have their sights set on attending a highly ranked program, but experts say applicants should focus more on finding the right fit for their goals.

That decision may also depend on which schools an applicant can realistically get into based on their academic profile. While law schools consider an applicant’s extracurriculars and “soft skills” gained through work or military experience, admissions decisions are largely based on an applicant’s undergraduate GPA and their scores on the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, or the Graduate Record Exam.

Some schools have adopted a test-optional approach. Schools that require or accept scores typically publish on their website the median scores of accepted students.

Law school hopefuls “should have three categories of law schools — our dream schools, realistic admissions and safety schools,” Lee says. “Schools in each of these categories should also be ranked.”

[Related:How to Get a Perfect Score on the LSAT]

In addition to considering which school is the best fit academically, applicants should determine which school is best for them socially and culturally and will provide the best opportunities for launching a legal career, experts say.

“Consider the school’s specialty courses, reputation and alumni network,” Lee says. “Most applicants put too much emphasis on the ranking of a school without researching on the law school’s programs and connections within a certain field or industry.”

How Will I Pay for Law School?

In addition to finding the right academic and cultural fit, students should determine which school, if any, fits their budget. Law school can be expensive, from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $200,000 total in some cases.

Students should consider schools where their LSAT score and GPA can help them land scholarship money, experts say. Some programs also offer tuition help through grants to help offset the cost.

“If you’re going somewhere you don’t have scholarship money, generally you’d be taking out loans and that can be something where you limit the options you have after you graduate,” Willinger says. “If you take out loans, generally that means you’re going to go to a bigger law firm to make the money to pay them back, or potentially public interest.”

In some cases, students can complete internships or jobs with local law firms, legal clinics or judges that can count as class credit, but it’s important to weigh the trade-offs of working on top of attending classes, he says.

When Should I Go to Law School?

Whenever you decide to attend law school, it’s best to apply early in the cycle because the rolling admission process of evaluating applications roughly in the order they are received could improve your odds the earlier you apply, experts say.

While some students go straight from an undergraduate degree to law school, that’s not always necessary, and some may benefit from a gap between the two for various reasons. Law school hopefuls can use that time to ensure their LSAT or GRE scores align with their target schools’ median scores and to bolster their resume, Willmott says.

Some may do that by taking time to work, and it’s not always necessary for that to be in the legal field, Willinger says.

“I really think that experience of being out in the real world and working a 9-to-5 job is quite valuable in terms of time management,” he says. “Having that experience when you apply to law firms or government jobs and even going into those internships, I think it can give you a leg up to have the experience of working a job for a full year or longer.”

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Questions to Ask Before Heading to Law School originally appeared on

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